A dove. A rainbow. Flames. God has always spoken to people not only with words but with images. The early church used stained glass, sculpture, mosaics, and painting to teach their largely illiterate congregations Biblical stories and theological concepts. In an increasingly visual age (see the explosion of Instagram, Snapchat, and Netflix, for example), reclaiming this method of expressing theology is wise and faithful.
Furthermore, when groups of people get together to collaborate, it does something to them as a community, beyond the final product created by their effort: it knits them together in an inexplicable way. It is my contention that this is the connection of the divine sparks in each of us who are made in the image of our Creator.
All of these ideas were on my mind when I applied for an Eli Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal grant in 2016. This is the grant that funded my art-focused sabbatical in the summer of 2017, and funded our congregation’s mural project. “Journey to a New Beginning” was the theme of both my personal explorations and our collective project. While I was in Europe, following the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh, local artist Jenie Gao was reading surveys and interviewing members of Trinity about their journeys and those of their families. She began to sketch visual representations of what she heard.
In the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018, many hands, large and small, touched the panels that are now gracing our exterior wall at Trinity. The team at Dane Arts Mural Arts took Jenie’s design and made drawings on huge panels of a wall-paper-like fabric. Then members of Trinity, the Boy Scouts, the Canopy Center, University of WI, the Goodman Center, East High School’s SAIL program, and others dripped brushes and fingers in paint to bring the art to life. Trinity’s Council approved a plan to clean and fix the wall facing the parking lot, making it fresh and clean as a backdrop to the mural (and many people offered contributions to help pay for this maintenance project—thank you!). Each finger that touched this mural has helped move congregation and creators of the mural into a dialogue with the entire community through beauty.
While all art can be interpreted in various ways, here are a few suggestions of what Jenie, the Sabbatical team (Roberta Carrier, Tom Conrad, Donna Fox, Jim Lottridge, and Vicki Olson), and I see when we look at Trinity’s four-paneled artwork. A woman in
traditional Norwegian dress, representing the immigrants who were the earliest members of Trinity Lutheran Church. Her hands are open to feed the birds, a sign of the church’s programs to address hunger and care for the little ones, as well as a nod to our community meals. Notice one bird has an olive leaf in its mouth. (What Bible story does that bring to mind for you?) The second panel shows a little girl dancing. Perhaps she reminds you of some of Trinity’s newer members? The third panel depicts a young person reading a book—a symbol of digging deep and opening our hearts and minds to Godstories.
Both the second and third panels feature a huge tree. Birds are flying in and out of the tree, and some little ones are still in their nest, under the watchful eye of their mama. We see this tree as the church, where people come to rest before continuing their journeys, strengthened and renewed. The Mother Bird reminds me of Jesus outside the city of Jerusalem, crying about how often he longed to gather the people there as a mother hen gathers her chicks. The fourth panel is a close up image of many different migratory birds, their beaks open in song together. Not only is this a reminder of Trinity’s longstanding musical tradition, it is also shows immigrants and residents collectively praising God.
Notice the egg still in the nest—a little globe, to show the world is present in every song. Through the four panels you can see the markings of a compass and a murmuration of starlings traveling in a dancelike formation. (I talked about this part of the mural in the sermon I preached on Trinity Sunday. All of us are on a journey to a new beginning, both individually and together. We are branches of the Vine that is Jesus, birds of the air that the Holy Spirit uplifts and sustains. We are creators, made in the image of a creating God. And God, the Holy Trinity, envisioned in a totally new way in the figures of the woman, the child, and the youth, in, with, and under it all. I can’t wait to hear what YOU see in the mural! Please join us at one or both of the events celebrating it during Atwoodfest, July 28 and 29.
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
~ Pastor Sue